January 21, 2008

A biased and flawed version of 1857

by Devendra Swarup

War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Vol. I, (The Road to Delhi) and The Long Revolution Vol. II by Amaresh Misra, Published by Rupa & Co, 7/16, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110 007, Price Rs. 2,500/-

If bulky size and hefty price could be the criteria for judging the quality of a book, then Amaresh Misra's War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Vol. I & II , deserves to be placed at the top of the huge mount of innumerable books published during the last 150 years on the 1857 Great Revolt. More than 2,000 pages—to be exact 2108, bound in two volumes, elegantly produced by a reputed publisher carry a price of rupees 2,500/- only. Presenting a very impressive look the book claims to be "The true story of India's first war of Independence," implying, thereby that whatever we had read so far was, perhaps, not true.

Its Mumbai based author, Amresh Misra is a freelance journalist, a political commentator, a columnist, a script writer for films and also a historian. More than that he is a political, civil right activist and leader and an anti-communal fighter. His ideological inclination is evident in his "Acknowledgments", wherein he honours "Akhilendra Pratap Singh, ex-president of the Allahabad University Students Union (AUSU), Politbureau member of the CPI-ML (liberation) as his friend, philosopher and guide" and admits that 'several ideas hatched in the book were formulated along with him way back in the 1990s in rugged, reflective, dusty rooms and streets of Allahabad, Lucknow, Benares and other UP-Bihar districts." Misra's other friend Salim Khan Durrani happens to be the anti-communal, anti-fascist resistance hero of Mumbai."

For Misra, history writing is not a detached academic exercise, rather it is part of ideological commitment and activism. He, frankly acknowledges that “during numerous street battles with the police and anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit-fascist lumpen hordes in the late 1980s and 1990s,” he learnt that "true data lies in the non-academic, mainstream reading of real action."

With this background of ideological inclination and political affiliation it is quite natural that Amresh Misra should see the continuity of the "Line of 1857" in the present day armed struggles initiated by Charu Majumdar and Vinod Misra, and commonly known as Naxalite movement, which have "rejected Gandhian non-violence and Indian modernity based on the philistine values of the "Bengal Renaissance." (Preface xxxv)

Therefore he tries to present the 'true story of 1857' in a subaltern mould rooted in an economic interpretation with overemphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity. His 20 pages long preface bears testimony of this subaltern economic approach. For Misra, ideological message is primary and facts of history are secondary. Starting from the establishment of the Moghul rule in 1526, the preface presents only economic factors which led to the uprising of 1857. A few specimens—"The Moghul state came close to establishing a mercantile industrial capitalism.... Moghuls practiced a form of moral, territorial, economic nationalism, (p xix). The Moghul state—operating from 1526—dealt directly with the peasants. Money economy was introduced in the villages." (xix). In Misra's subaltern looking glass, "Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh also were no peasant leaders fighting against a feudal state order. They were all village level entrepreneurs expanding their dynastic peasant aristocracies and kingdoms." (p. xxi) According to Misra, "Big and small, successor Moghul states actually were a product of an alliance of the town with the impulse from below (p. xxii).

Being an enthusiastic 'anti-communal' crusader, Misra finds that "Aurangzeb did not allow religious matters to interfere in state policy... reimposition of Jazia tax also had logic; far from being a weapon of conversion or discrimination, it was actually meant to provide ideological cohesion to a breath taking, shuddering, heterogeneous Empire" (p. xxx) Misra gives you the "true story" of the construction of Gyanvapi masjid at Benares. In Misra's own words, "The Muslim Kotwal of Varanasi had his eye on a Brahmin's beautiful daughter. Emperor Aurangzeb came to know of this. He went in disguise to Varanasi and catching the Kotwal red handed slew him then and there. The Brahmin had land near the Vishwanath Shiv temple; to show his gratitude he persuaded the Emperor to sanction the building of a mosque on his land. This is how a mosque came to stand near a temple—interestingly Indian, generally pro-British fascist organisations tried making a communal issue out of this in the 1990s." (p. xxx) Poor J.N. Sarkar must be turning in his grave over his ignorance of the "true story"?

See the image of Shah Waliullah, who mobilised all the Muslim forces against the Maratha Kafirs in the Third battle of Panipat (1761), through Misra's prism. Negating all the published original sources and studies on Shah Walliullah, which present him a fanatic Muslim reformer and strong Hindu hater, Misra wants us to believe that "Shah Waliullah... spoke of the Empire's revival based on peasant/aristocratic capitalism from below. Shah Waliullah spoke of Indian revolution... He reinterpreted Jihad as Inquilab (revolution)..." (p. xxxi)

Further, he says, "Shah Waliullah's movement, dubbed Wahabi by the British... was a quintessentially Indian movement of liberation...." (p xxxii) In fact 1857 itself "was a realisation of Shah Waliullah's dream of reviving the Moghul Empire and India's glory on a new basis, to restore Asiatic State power in a revolutionary way." (p. xxxiv)

Misra is so much enamoured of Waliullah that he loves to call the movement, started by Syed Ahmed Barelvi in 1822 and which is named Wahabi by all the contemporary and later writers as Waliullahite.

According to Misra, “Barelvi, following Shah Waliullah's line, combined peasant movement with nationalist anti-British appeals” (p. 192) Suppressing totally the fact that Syed Ahmed Barelvi carried a long struggle against Raja Ranjit Singh's conquest of Peshawar and adjoining Afghan areas and that in 1831 he died fighting against Ranjit Singh's forces, Misra writes that "Syed Ahmed Barelvi achieved martyrdom in 1831 after defeating British forces in two encounters near Balakot" (p. 192). He assigns key role to a Multani Kharral leader Ahmad Kharral, who was in touch with the Swat Waliullahite forces, in planning and organising the 1857 rebellion. According to Misra Ahmad Kharral during Azimullah's exploratory visit to Ambala in April 1857 was his main guide. He writes, “Ahmad Kharral came upto Ludhiana along with Azimullah to meet a young Swami later known as Swami Dayananda. Azimullah asked him (swami) to station himself at Meerut as the "Nomadic crowd there is most desirous of revolution.”

The vast biographical literature on Swami Dayanand nowhere mentions his presence at Ludhiana in 1857. But, Amresh Misra has two exclusive unpublished Hindi sources in his possession. One, Baghawat in Kahani by some Maheshwar Misra of Kanpur and the other Soormaye Hind by Thakur Rameshwar Prasad Singh of Basti. Interestingly, these two very original and exclusive sources do not find place in the 20 pages long annotated bibliography given at the end of the second volume. So, except knowing their titles you have no other information about their whereabouts as well as their own sources.

The first two chapters "A Pathan in London" and "Courtesan of Kanpur" (pp 1-101) really resonate with smells and sounds of an Indian, caravanserai (inn) and chandukhana (opium house). Both these chapters are full of sex scandals of British ladies in London, love stories and erotic dances of Azizanbai in Kanpur and Lucknow. The author uses the unpublished Baghawat ki kahani and a pamphlet titled Kissa Azeezan bai ka. Both chapters give the pleasure of reading a novel, and not serious history.

Similarly to give a subaltern look he jumbles together all the detailed information about different castes and tribes, available in the district gazetteers prepared by the British officers (see chapter 3). He uses titles like "Rajputs, Bhumihars, Ahirs, Kurmis, Maithils, Maghis, Pandeys (Chapter 19). Misra is conscious that his great work is "Moving between solid research and the story telling format, using oral and written sources" (p. xxxvi)

Following the British historian Eric stakes 'The Peasants Armed' he uses terms like "peasant sepoy", "peasant armies", "peasant-military revolution", but Chapter 4 titled, "North India Poorabias, Pashchamiyas, Red Storm: episode I (p. 142-225), which is based upon solid research contradicts fully his subaltern theory of economic grievances. Nowhere in this long chapter one finds any mention of any economic grievance rather every sepoy of every regiment of the Bengal Native Army is worried about the loss of his caste and religion by the use of the greased catridges; his conversion to Christianity through fraudulent means. The book is full of such internal contradictory, flawed and distorted historical facts. It calls for a minute examination and detailed criticism, which due to paucity of space is not possible here.

However, the author has earned our gratitude for painstakingly bringing together all the data scattered in so many published sources at one place. His lucid and juicy style of expression giving taste of a mix of fiction and history, also deserves praise. Few proof mistakes here and there could have been avoided by a little more careful reading. But the index at the end calls for a thorough revision and updating. This reviewer discovered that in the entry Walliullahites (p. 2071) page nos. 136, 148, 192, 193, 194, 200, 203, 205, 206, 207, 208, 266 are missing while they give vital information about Syed Ahmed Barelvi, Faraize leaders of Bengal and Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad. Without an exhaustive index the readers will find it very cumbursome to use such a bulky book.

(The reviewer is a renowned historian and former editor of Panchjanya and can be contacted at 178, Sahyog Apts, Mayur Vihar-I, New Delhi-100 091 e-mail: devendra_swarup@hotmail.com)


Anonymous said...

I must say I was very dissaponted with the content and the tone of th review. I am not sure you have read the entire book- it seems you have read it in the beginning and after that in bits!
I am a fervent history reader and I must say that after the fake Darlymple and similar wanna be historians who claim to "know" Indian history, Mr misra's work was a breath of fresh air. His perspective is atlast unseen and unheard of from any Indian historian, no one has atempted to compile such an enormous amount of data across India into one.

Also- as is obvious that the reviewwer does not encourage secularism or anti-communal sentiments- his reviews should be banned for a county like india that stands for Unity in diversity

Anonymous said...

When the author of the book openly expressed that "true data lies in the non-academic, mainstream reading of real action." . This book is destined to trash bin /

Anonymous said...

Swarup appears to be a pro British
baniya cunt.

Ranjha said...

"anonymous" appears to be pro sulla just lyk the scumbag misra.

both likely to be brahmin cunts.

Anonymous said...

Your review begins by noting the role of ideology and thr writing of history. Interesting! But the question is whether history CAN be written outside and without any ideological bias. Of course your could be an Annalist (I do hope you know who or what an Annalist is!). But then, that would not be history as we know it...would it? You keep referring to Misra's book being essentially non-academic. Well...what is this privilage that you accord to an 'academic history'? Who decides and on what basis what a 'proper' academic history is or should be?

Recently, I was researching the life and crimes of Stalin and I came across a number of private and unpublished diaries written by some of those whom he had consigned to the gulags. Now, as a historian, am I supposed to ignore these sources? Do these sources not give me (and us) an insight into Stalin - the man and his thinking at particular points in time? Similarly, recently while researching the Holocaust - particularly at Sobibor, I came into contact with people who had scraps of paper yellowed with age on which their loved ones - the ones who died in Sobibor - had written of their experiences. Are these accounts - fragmentary as they may be - not historical accounts? Are these not witnesses to history?

Perhaps a reconsideration of your somewhat rigid and ultimately unteneable point of view as reflected in this review of Misra's book is in order.

Sanjeev said...

I'm just shocked that how someone with as limited capabilities as amaresh misra, is able to concoct such theories? he seem to be suffering from schizophrenia, or dementia!
i'm appalled by such theorists. i'm sure he is also the one who would blame jews to carry out the 9/11 attack!
i just shudder to understand on what sort of dog shit does india raise jerks like amaresh. he even painted aurangzeb as angel in his account of "war of civilizations" book. somebody tell this buffoon nincompoop dickhead, that aurangzeb had mercilessly lynched a sikh guru and killed thousands of innocent people. its just unbelievable. it almost feels like that paki mullahs are sending their bastards in india and telling them to lead a life of a writer or an intellectual!

Anonymous said...


I just want to say that Mr. Amresh Misra - stop writing all this Anti- India stuff as it is being widely quoted by pakistanis to deflect the blame of Mumabai attack from Pakistan to India - specially by hawks like Zaid Hamid- watch his videos on you tube.

You are in India, an Indian, at least show some respect and courtsey to your motherland and dont beocome anti-national. Dont give amunition to Pakistanis in the name of being anti-communal & Civil right activist. This does not suit a person like you.

One last word - dont forget that you live in India and earn your livelihood here and not in Pakistan, they are not going to return your favour, but use you or use whatever you write against India and them dump you, so stop supporting them.

Pls excercise some caution while writing. May God give you the wisdom to segregate between right & wrong.

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